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Lessons in human dignity

A teacher at a last-chance school witnesses the struggle to forgive and to ask forgiveness.

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Andy Nelson/TCSM/FILE

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The students enter the building through a side door, where they promptly submit backpacks and any other personal items to the New York Police Department safety agent who greets them at the steps. There's a male agent for the boys, a female for the girls. Everyone is scanned for weapons, cellphones, and drugs upon entering the building. Some of the more committed students have hidden items inside a shoe, their underwear, the lining of a wig. The rest have scattered belongings in various spots throughout the neighborhood. It's Monday morning at one of New York City's Level 5 yearlong suspension sites. I teach English here.

I used to remark to friends and relatives that I would gladly teach any kid in the city. Oh, really? When I made this statement, I was working at a large traditional high school in New York. We had sports teams and a band. I signed yearbooks and hugged parents at graduation. Then things changed. The school was declared "dangerous." The faculty was forced to find new positions. So how do I describe this strange, new teaching universe I've entered, one that was clearly not my first choice? It has become the greatest lesson in human dignity I've ever had.

My new school has a unique and troubled population, but they still have the right to a public education. Students who have been suspended from their neighborhood schools come here. They earn credits. They take their state exams here. We study the speech patterns and motivations of Holden Caulfield, the original troubled New York teen, as we would at any other school in the city.

Yet the dramas unfolding in their respective neighborhoods often take precedence over any literature we explore in the classroom. When a friend or acquaintance is killed, a student will wear a T-shirt with the departed's face staring back at me all day, rendering the book in my hand nearly useless.

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